Why spacecraft computing has one Hal of a future
Man's first 50 years of spaceflight may have been fuelled by human ingenuity but it is artificial intelligence that will play an increasingly important role in future expeditions into the cosmos.
Both the European Space Agency (ESA) and Nasa are exploring how AI can be used to help satellites map other worlds and robotic rovers search for signs of life outside of Earth.
One of the first of ESA's satellite missions to use AI on its ground control systems was the Mars Express, the satellite orbiting Mars to create a high-resolution map of its surface and take measurements from the planet's atmosphere and surface.
Since 2005, the AI software has been helping mission planners schedule the best time each day for the Mars Express to dump the data it has gathered to the ESA systems back on Earth, ensuring the data is not lost in transit or overwritten in the satellite's memory.
Calculating the best time to download data requires the AI software to take a host of factors into account, such as the orientation of the spacecraft, the planned scientific activity, the ground station availability and the bandwidth available for space-ground communication.
"Before, this was very tedious and very complicated manual work - with the [AI] tool we reduced more than 50 per cent of the workload associated with this task," Alessandro Donati, head of the advanced mission concepts and technologies office at ESA's Space Operations Centre at Darmstadt, Germany, told silicon.com.
AI-based scheduling is also used by ESA ground staff to help plan where in the universe the Integral gamma ray space telescope should collect data from.
Previously it would have solely been up to a member of the ground staff to schedule Integral's data-gathering activities. "This is a fantastic improvement in terms of workload," Donati said.
ESA is also developing AI software that will enable planet exploration rovers, and eventually satellites, to automatically reschedule their duties - a useful ability for when an unexpected event or discovery upsets its normal routine.
"It is a very important building block towards the onboard autonomy process," said Donati.
"The software takes into consideration events that have happened and availability of resources that might not necessarily be the same as we were expecting at the beginning of the process."
This "autonomous controller" software is currently being developed within ESA and the next stage of its development will be to test it using a software simulation of a real rover mission.
The first satellite missions to use these more sophisticated AI programs in onboard systems are likely to either be...